Polymega N64 Module
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Originally announced back in 2017 as the RetroBlox, Polymega has endured a fairly tumultuous journey to market. While the system's objective has always been the same – to offer players the chance to access software for a wide range of cartridge and CD-based retro consoles in one place – we've seen a lot of changes over the past few years. FPGA support was dropped early on, something which caused a lot of consternation amongst potential buyers accustomed to the impeccable performance of Analogue's excellent Super Nt and Mega Sg, and then the system missed its proposed 'early 2019' release window.

Pre-orders opened, but the launch was pushed back again and once more at the close of 2020, and then there was the double-whammy of the Coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest in Myanmar – the Southeast Asian location where California-based Playmaji, the team behind the Polymega, has chosen to manufacture the console. As a result, the system has been hindered by crippling component shortages and frustrating delays.

Even now, in 2023 – that's three years since we were sent our review unit – there are customers who pre-ordered the system months (if not years) ago and still don't have it. Given the years of broken promises and communication blackouts, is Polymega still worth a look in 2024 – even with N64 support? Let's find out...

Polymega Review: The Basics

It's perhaps worth talking about how this machine actually works and how it will run your beloved retro collection. The base Polymega system ($449, a rise from the initially advertised $399) comes with a CD drive and plays Sega Saturn, Sony PlayStation, Sega Mega-CD, Neo Geo CD and PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 CD games from all regions. Cartridge-based platforms (NES, SNES, Mega Drive, 32X and PC Engine / TG-16) are playable using optional, detachable 'Element Modules', each of which has to be purchased separately at a cost of $79.99 and come with their own custom controllers based on the pads used with the original machines.

The Element Modules also house low-latency controller ports for their respective systems, so you can also use your vintage controllers if you have them to hand. Output is via HDMI, as you might expect, which pushes a nice, crisp 1080p signal to your HD television.

The Polymega comes with a massive pre-installed database with cover art, text descriptions and screenshots for thousands of supported games across all of these systems (however, the actual games themselves are not included, before you get too excited). The team behind the system has also spent a considerable amount of time reverse-engineering the BIOS files for each CD-based format the Polymega supports, which removes one of the most tedious (and potentially copyright-infringing) setup procedures normally associated with playing CD consoles via emulation (this has led to some incompatibilities with certain games, so you can side-load original BIOS files if you wish).

When you load a game up, it is matched with its database entry and can be either played from the original media or installed to the system's internal storage; if you choose to do the latter, you no longer need the original cartridge or disc to play that game in the future. M.2 SSD support is also included and comes highly recommended (you can also use MicroSD cards or USB storage if you wish). We've fitted a 1TB SSD to our beta console, and even with over 800 games installed (most of which were installed from CD), we still have more than 750GB of space remaining.

CD-based systems are supported by the base unit without the need to purchase any additional hardware, but the interchangeable Element Modules are required to use cartridge-based titles. These bolt onto the top of the machine and, as we've said, come with their own vintage controller ports.

Polymega Review: Installing Games

You can either choose to play the game directly from the cartridge or CD or install it to the Polymega's internal memory – a process that is practically instantaneous. For example, we installed over 100 Mega Drive and 32X games in the space of 30 minutes, and most of that time was taken up by physically removing the games from their boxes.

The time it takes to install a game from CD varies; some of the discs we loaded up installed in seconds (Guardian Force on the Sega Saturn was done in under half a minute), while others took longer. The process is variable due to a wide range of factors; data size is the most obvious, but if the disc has scratches or marks, it means the Polymega has to take a little longer to read the data correctly. In a neat time-saving touch, games begin the install process the moment you load them into the drive; if you choose not to install and simply play from the disc, that data is deleted the moment you push the eject button.

Once any game is installed, it is displayed in its relevant system menu in the console's pleasantly slick UI; you can also create custom playlists for particular titles or genres, to make them easier to find. Furthermore, the console leverages its massive database by giving you recommendations based on the game you're currently playing; so, should you load up, say, Burning Rangers on the Saturn, you'll be able to browse similar games, titles also published by Sega and games released in the same year; these can then be added to a wish list for future reference. You can choose to disable this feature and only get recommendations based on what you have installed in your library if you wish, but we rather liked seeing the suggestions and made more than a few trips to eBay searching for the titles highlighted.

Patches – such as fan-made translations of Japanese games – can be applied to installed software using a USB thumb drive or Micro SD card, and you can even safely 'remove' the patch at a later date if you so wish. Oh, and while we're here, we should point out that the Polymega is perfectly happy playing and installing copies of games made on CD-R discs, although the intention is clearly for users to digitise their own collections rather than resort to downloading them from shady sites online. Playmaji has been very clear on the fact that you won't ever be able to simply dump a bunch of ROMs onto the console via USB or Micro SD; the system also won't work with flash cartridges, such as the Everdrive range.

All games benefit from creature comforts such as save states and screen filters. The RGB scanline filter replicates what games would look like on a classic CRT television, while the Composite option simulates that particular AV connection. More superfluous filters are available, too, such as Game Boy and Virtual Boy options which give the image a very low-fi quality. Should you choose to play without any kind of screen filter, you're getting an incredibly crisp image, just like you'd expect to see if you were using a PC-based emulator. The Polymega's UI also allows you to take screenshots during games as well as tinker with settings such as screen aspect ratio, screen rotation (perfect for TATE games), game refresh rates (for when you're running slower PAL titles), rapid-fire settings and analogue controls. Playmaji continues to add more options and features via regular firmware updates.

While the focus is very much on using your original games, the base unit nonetheless comes pre-loaded with a bunch of NES, SNES, Mega Drive and PC Engine / TG-16 titles, mostly thanks to licencing deals with Piko Interactive and Masaya. Games like Iron Commando, Top Racer / Top Gear, Sword of Sodan, Target: Renegade and Moto Roader II are all included as standard, and while none of the bundled games are what you'd call AAA releases, they do hint at another exciting part of the Polymega's future – the proposed digital store which will allow publishers and developers to monetize their back catalogues in very much the same way that the Virtual Console did on Wii, Wii U and 3DS.

Because the team behind the system has done all of the hard work by painstakingly populating that massive database with cover art, screenshots and descriptions, all that's really needed is for the IP holder to grant access to the ROM via a digital store and they've effectively got a valuable revenue stream that wouldn't exist otherwise. There are plans for Polymegat to support non-console formats, such as arcade machines, in the future, too.

Polymega Review: Hardware & Controller

The Polymega base unit is smaller than your typical current-gen game console, but it's still large enough to require some rearrangement of your current AV setup. The unit comes with a 'blank' Element Module, which can be left in place if you're only interested in playing CD-based games. However, you're almost sure to want to invest in additional Element Modules, and these are connected by pushing the button on the side of the system, which ejects the current module.

The base unit we received for review in 2020 came with a wireless Polymega wireless controller shaped like a PlayStation DualShock pad. Plagued with latency issues and sporting a rather cheap design, this pad has since been replaced by the second-generation controller, which is a massive improvement. It connects via 2.4GHz rather than Bluetooth so there's less latency, and the design feels a little more robust. It's 'inspired' by the PlayStation 4 pad, which is no bad thing. On the downside, it still uses a USB dongle to connect to the Polymega itself, and it's quite large – making the system even harder to integrate with your current entertainment setup beneath the television.

Each Element Module comes with a controller based on the pad that shipped with its respective system. While these vary in design and shape, they're all produced by Playmaji and are generally well-constructed.

The Mega Drive / Genesis one felt a little odd in our hands – at least when compared to the original Sega-made controllers – but the SNES pad is an excellent replacement for the real deal. Likewise, we found the NES pad much more comfortable to use than the original (the A and B buttons are arranged in a more agreeable fashion), while the TG-16 controller uses the 6-button layout seen in the NEC Avenue pad, which was released around the same time as the Japan-exclusive PC Engine port of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition.

The bonus here is that all of these pads will work on the original consoles, too, so they're worth seeking out even if you have no interest in the Polymega system at all but are simply looking for replacements for your old and battered controllers.

Polymega Review: Supported Controllers

Alternatively, Polymega also supports a wide range of wired pads, including Retro-Bit's excellent Sega-licenced controllers, the iconic Xbox 360 pad and even the one which comes bundled with the PlayStation Classic. These are all instantly detected by the system, with button mapping taking place automatically, so you can play Saturn and PlayStation titles with an authentic controller. Even the on-screen button prompts in the UI change according to which controller you're using, which is a nice touch.

While latency didn't feel like an issue to us with USB pads, when using the built-in controller ports on the Element Modules the lag is reduced almost to nothing (a single frame, in fact). While we're on the topic of peripherals, there's a 'next-gen' light gun up for pre-order which will allow you to play titles like Duck Hunt, Time Crisis and House of the Dead on your flatscreen TV.

Here's a list of the controllers we've confirmed work with Polymega:

  • Xbox 360 Controller (Wired)
  • Retro-Bit Sega Controllers Genesis and Saturn (Wired)
  • Retro-Bit Sega Controllers Genesis and Saturn (Wireless with 2.4GHz dongle)
  • PC Engine Mini Controller (Wired)
  • PlayStation Classic Controller (Wired)
  • Evercade VS Controller (Wired)
  • Sega Genesis / Mega Drive Mini Controller (Wired)
  • Retro Fighters BrawlerGen Controller (Wired)
  • Retro Fighters Defender (Wireless with 2.4GHz dongle)

Polymega Review: Element Modules & N64 Impressions

Five Element Modules are currently available:

  • EM01 - Power (NES)
  • EM02 - Super (SNES)
  • EM03 - Mega (Genesis / Mega Drive)
  • EM04 - Turbo (TG-16 / PC Engine)
  • EM05 - Ultra (N64)

The EM05 Ultra module is the most recent addition to the line-up, and we've been putting it through its paces. The good news is that N64 emulation is solid; we threw plenty of games at this thing and found that performance is excellent, with games looking much sharper than they did back in the day (there's no option to boost the resolution, however, as is the case with some PC-based emulators). The installation process is also incredibly quick when dumping cartridges to the Polymega's internal memory; it literally takes seconds to install these titles. The cartridge slot is rather tight, though, and removing games takes a bit of effort.

The bundled controller, which has been created in conjunction with accessory maker Retro-Bit, might divide opinion, however. It's very similar to Retro-Bit's Tribute pad, with some minor alterations when it comes to button placement. The D-pad seems to give a few false diagonal inputs, which can be annoying when navigating the Polymega's UI, but when you're in a game, things are a lot more agreeable. The analogue stick, in particular, feels great. Some purists might lament the fact that the iconic three-prong design is absent, but you can always use your original N64 pads. The module has four controller ports on the front, so four-player GoldenEye 007 deathmatches are possible – and support for the N64 Transfer Pak means that Game Boy and Game Boy Color games will be coming in the future.

Not everything is perfect with the EM05 Ultra Module just yet. Some titles require you to enable beta compatibility in order to get them to run (we noticed this with the Japanese version of Star Fox 64). There are some little inaccuracies with the emulation to note as well, such as the way the lens flare in Zelda: Ocarina of Time's introduction sequence doesn't seem quite right; it glitches in and out rather than remaining constant (you can see what we mean in this video).

We also encountered an odd recurring issue where the Polymega UI would pop up randomly during gameplay, even if the controller wasn't being touched. We'd imagine this is an issue that Playmaji will address in a future firmware update, and we've approached the company for comment.

All in all, the EM05 Ultra Module is another welcome addition to the Polymega hardware library and performs really well – especially when you consider how tricky N64 emulation is to get right.

Polymega Review: Pre-Loaded Games

The Polymega base system comes pre-loaded with seven games:

  • 40 Winks (PS1)
  • Viper (PS1, PAL)
  • Iron Commando (SNES, NA / Japanese)
  • Top Racer / Top Gear (SNES, Japanese)
  • Battle Squadron (Genesis)
  • Rescue: The Embassy Mission (NES)

Also, in addition to this, the Element Modules come with their own selection of games, each tailored to the system in question:

EM01: Power (NES)

  • 8 Eyes
  • Nightshade
  • Target: Renegade
  • Power Punch II
  • Treasure Master

EM02: Super (SNES)

  • Dragon View
  • Legend
  • Gourmet Warriors
  • Push-Over (PAL)
  • Top Gear 2 (Japanese)
  • Super Drakkhen (Japanese)
  • Gurume Sentai Bara Yarou (Japanese)

EM03: Mega (Mega Drive / Genesis)

  • Top Gear 2
  • Tinhead
  • Sword of Sodan
  • Brave Battle Saga – Legend of the Magic Warrior
  • Water Margin – A Tale of Clouds and Wind

EM04: Turbo (TG-16 / PC Engine)

  • Double Dungeons
  • Dragon Egg!
  • Moto Roader
  • Moto Roader II
  • Shockman / Kaizō Chōjin Shubibinman 2: Aratanaru Teki

Note: As of system update 1.1.30, the titles from Piko Interactive have been removed.

Polymega Review: Emulation & Performance

Now to the important part – how does the Polymega handle emulation, given that it's not using FPGA technology favoured by hardcore retro enthusiasts? Very well, actually. Sure, it's still software emulation (debate still rages as to whether or not software emulation can ever be as accurate as FPGA, which is effectively 'hardware emulation'), but we didn't notice any instances of games playing differently to how they should on original hardware.

Also, while there are still incompatibility problems to be solved via future firmware updates, software support is impressive. As evidence of this, during the 2020 'beta' phase, we installed over 170 games to the M.2 SSD, finding just three CD-ROM titles that showed up as 'unsupported' when loaded into the console's drive. We initially assumed this was down to the degradation of the optical media over the decades, but, once the final retail firmware was applied to our unit, these three games worked without issue. However, in a rather bizarre twist, titles that worked fine during the beta period became listed as 'unsupported' by the console, and we also experienced a few instances of discs being ejected by the system in the middle of an install.

Playmaji has spent the past three years fine-tining compatibility and ironing out any issues, and the abovementioned problems have largely been eradicated in 2024. Like many other pieces of modern consumer hardware, Polymega is likely to continue to evolve and improve over its lifespan.

Likewise, issues such as games displaying visual quirks, refusing to load past a certain point and other emulation kinks have been largely ironed out; the majority of these problems seem to be related to the aforementioned reverse-engineered BIOS files and loading up the original BIOS via a USB drive or MicroSD card almost always solves them.

While it might seem disappointing that there are still incompatibilities in the production model of the Polymega, we have to remember that this is a system that is expected to play literally thousands of games across multiple formats – and, as has been evidenced during our time with the system, there are often multiple variants of a single game based on production runs, and these all need to be catalogued in the Polymega's database before they can be installed to the console.

Still, on the upside, it's worth noting that Saturn emulation – which has long been spotty, even on powerful PCs – is surprisingly solid. We tested a wide range of games and they look, sound and feel the same as they do on original hardware; even ambitious titles like Virtua Fighter 2, which use the console's high-res mode, run brilliantly. Load times sadly don't seem to be any different on Polymega, with the exception of the Neo Geo CD games, which boot practically instantly. All in all, the standard of emulation present here is remarkable; while it's still software-based and therefore will never be a 1:1 replication, it's close enough to be of little consequence to the average user – and as time goes on, it's only going to improve.

Polymega Review: Conclusion

Despite its long and often painful route to market, the Polymega remains a truly mouthwatering prospect for retro gamers. While its cost is indeed high, the base unit of the Polymega offers incredible value, even at the (sneakily-inflated) price of $450; purchasing all of the retro systems (not to mention regional variants) it supports individually would total much more than the asking price. Factor in the Element Modules at $80 a pop, and the cost increases – but even so, being able to expand the system is a real boon, and there's no reason why, in the future, we couldn't see support increase thanks to the modular nature of the hardware. N64 support is already here, and Atari modules are on the way, too (Atari now owns a considerable chunk of Playmaji, which bodes well for the company's future).

Of course, there will always be those who argue that systems like the Raspberry Pi and MiSTer are more sensible and cheaper routes to embracing old games; the former costs a fraction of what the Polymega will set you back, and while the latter is slightly more expensive (around $300 all-in), you don't have to have a massive collection to enjoy it. But therein lies one of the core appeals of the Polymega; this isn't a system for people who just want to bung a load of ROMs onto an SD card and be done with it – it's a machine aimed at those who already have a sizeable retro collection and want a convenient means of accessing and enjoying those games.

As the world becomes more and more digital, the notion of celebrating physical, packaged software is understandably appealing, and Polymega allows you to do that without having to fight with dying hardware and outdated AV standards. It's also worth mentioning that, with the Pi and MiSTer, there's a whole lot of user maintenance involved to get them working, which could be off-putting to casual users, whereas the Polymega works out of the box – and offers a slick and appealing UI to boot.

Polymega SNES Module
Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Polymega has a lot going for it, but winning over the masses isn't going to be easy – especially in light of the many issues that have plagued the system over the years. The absence of FPGA support, numerous delays, last-minute price rises and unfortunate lack of communication from the manufacturer over outstanding pre-orders will have done much to harm Polymega's standing with a core group of hardcore enthusiasts, and convincing those same individuals to give the machine a chance is perhaps going to be Playmaji's biggest challenge – especially when you combine this with what many have seen to be an unforgivable breakdown in communication over the past few years. Some people have been waiting since 2018 to get their hands on this console, and even now, at the end of 2023, some are still waiting.

However, we can't help but feel very optimistic indeed about Polymega's potential, despite all the drama. Sure, it lacks the accuracy that something like MiSTer brings to the table, and $450 is a lot of money to spend in order to play old games, but nonetheless, there's nothing else quite like this machine on the market – and It looks set to become a highly desirable piece of hardware for retro fans. We're not afraid to admit we're utterly in love and can't wait to see where this system goes next.

We'd like to thank Playmaji for sending us a unit and several Element Modules and controllers for the purpose of this review.

This article was originally published by nintendolife.com on Tue 11th August, 2020.